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Bill Maher on free speech, comedy, and his haters

The host of HBO’s Real Time discusses the risks and challenges of political humor.

Real Time with Bill Maher Chris Polk/FilmMagic

I cover politics for a living, but I’ve also been a fan of stand-up comedy for most of my life. Over the last five years or so, a lot of political comedy has grown stale. I keep asking myself, why is that?

I’m tempted to say it’s because the Trump era was too easy for comics. And yet that’s too simple and probably just wrong. Besides, there are plenty of great comics right now. My main objection (and to state the obvious, I’m just a fan) is that much of it is predictably partisan. Don’t get me wrong, comedians can be political and funny, but the partisan comics have always bored me to death. For me, the best comedy is reflective and honest; it spares no one and nothing.

I recently spoke to Bill Maher, an acclaimed stand-up comedian and the longtime host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, for an episode of Vox Conversations. Maher’s a political comic, and clearly a liberal, but I’ve always enjoyed his work because I’ve never really considered him a partisan, even though conservatives are the butt of most of his jokes. For all of his anti-Republican bits, you also get jabs at the left, like his recent segments on “progressophobia” and “cultural appropriation.”

Depending on the day, Twitter progressives are as likely to be pissed off at Maher as MAGA conservatives. And I suspect that has a lot to do with the enduring success of his HBO show, which premiered back in 2003.

We discuss how a guy who donated a million dollars to Obama’s presidential campaign, who’s been way out front on issues like animal rights and climate change, became a lightning rod. We also talk about the risks of political comedy and why ideology is always a threat to humor.

Listen to our conversation below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.